If you were to take all the leaves off the trees in Connecticut, how many square miles would they cover?
High school students from across Connecticut and New York grappled with that question, among others, at this year’s Yale Physics Olympics.
On Saturday, the Physics Department held the 20th Yale Physics Olympics at the Sloane Physics Laboratory. The event drew 200 students from 45 different high schools in Connecticut and New York. Arranged in teams of four, contestants completed five tasks that tested their knowledge of physics concepts and experimental designs.
“The goal here is really to get kids excited about science,” said Stephen Irons, a physics lecturer and director of the Yale Physics Olympics since 2004.
The five tasks represented the range of different work scientists do in a way that was accessible to high school students, Irons said. Each year, most of the tasks are different, but one of them — the Fermi Quiz — is included in every year’s questions. Named after the renowned Italian-American physicist, the quiz contains a series of estimation questions that often appear in scientific investigation, according to Irons.
Others events featured more hands-on activities steeped in physics principles. Paul Noel, an instructional specialist in the physics department and a member of the Yale Physics Olympics Executive Board, designed and coordinated the Bad Amplitude event. According to Noel, students participating in the event were asked to transfer as much energy as possible from one pendulum to another and were graded on the amplitude of the second pendulum.
“There’s a lot of deep physics in it that they will eventually learn, but they don’t have to know that in order to do this,” he said.
Michael Oliver GRD ’20, a volunteer at the event, said that the competition was focused primarily on “how best to set up the experiments and how best to make measurements.”
Still, other events branched out to encompass other engineering ideas. The Payload it Forward event asked students to design a model rocket that can go as far as possible with as much weight as possible, requiring “balancing” and “optimization,” Irons said.
Hunter Smith, coach of the team from the Engineering and Science University Magnet School, said the competition offered a different experience from a typical high school classroom.
“It’s not always clear here what the best way is, so that opens up the possibilities … and allows physical intuition,” he said.
James Vetro, a contestant from Canton High School, said he was thrilled by the hectic pace of the competition, especially the Bad Amplitude Event and the Fermi Quiz.
Asked whether he enjoyed the competition, Vetro said he would definitely come back next year.
After finishing all five events, students had the choice to attend a physics demonstration or a tour of the newly renovated Wright Lab, both led by Yale physics professors, before heading to the award ceremony.
Team Vampires and Zombies from Canton won the overall first-place award — a 3D printer.
The Yale Physics Olympics was founded in 1998 by Cornelius Beausang, a former adjunct professor in the department.
Malcolm Tang | firstname.lastname@example.org